Keep Looking Up

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I tend to run hot and cold on side projects like photography and blogging. I’m sure you can relate. We’re all really busy, and work, family, and yes, going out and shooting can get in the way of posting blog updates.

I’d hoped to get to Big Bend National Park this year to shoot the Milky Way, but unfortunately that’s not going to happen. Maybe next year.

But you never know when a great shot opportunity presents itself. That’s exactly what happened last month during our Florida trip. We were driving back and I happened to look out towards the beach, and to my surprise I could see the Milky Way. The light pollution maps appeared to show the area I was in as too bright, so I hadn’t thought much about trying to shoot, except maybe some star trails.

I’d never tried shooting the Milky Way, but I wasn’t going to pass an opportunity to try.

So I grabbed my faithful Nikon D5300 and MeFOTO tripod and headed to the beach.

Not the greatest Milky Way shot ever, but I’m pretty happy with it. Next time I’ll probably try multiple shots and some blending in post to knock out some noise.

Still Searching for Dark Skies

star trails over Woodville

Sometimes I feel like I’m too easily sidetracked in my photography. There’s no doubt long exposure photography is something I really like. Light trails, light painting, steel wool photography – I like them all. There’s no doubt that car light trails and other “trick shots” make for interesting images.¬†While reading articles and tutorials and watching videos on these topics, I’ll run across other photography topics that grab my attention.

A while back I stumbled across astrophotography. You know, star trails, the moon, the Milky Way. At first I wasn’t all that into it. I shot some star trails last summer and had some fun with it but really didn’t stick with it.

That is, until last fall when I went out in search of dark skies. Like many people in the U.S. I live in an area with a lot of light pollution and I gave up on the notion of finding night skies that were dark enough.

But last year I didn’t plan. No maps. No looking at moon phases.

I had a great time. I got some good shots, and I also had some failures. I’d love to say each time I go out and shoot it goes exactly as planned, but that’s just not how it goes for me.

Here are a couple of shots from my last night time photography adventure. I have a friend who has a hunting camp a little over an hour north of here. There’s a small town a few miles away, and it’s far enough away from severe light pollution.

star trails over Woodville
my first try this year at star trails
blue hour in Woodville
shot during blue hour

I would have liked to scout the location before driving up. Sometimes you just can’t, and due to traffic, I didn’t get to the location until about 45 minutes before sunset. That doesn’t give much time to look around and see where you’d like to set up and shoot when it gets dark. That’s something I’ll definitely try to correct next time. Even though I’m happy with the shots I got, I felt rushed to find a spot and setup, and the added stress took away from the fun.

And this was my first night out shooting in what I consider really cold weather. Those of us who live in the U.S. southern states are lucky to have mostly mild weather in winter. But there are times when (at least to us) it gets really cold. It also feels colder when you’re out in the woods in the middle of the night.

So I finally settled on a spot, setup my Nikon D5300 and my MIOPS Smart trigger to run a time-lapse. I set it to capture 300 exposures. My battery was almost fully charged when I started, but it was completely drained at around the 3 hour mark. It was cold enough that my camera had condensation all over it, my first time ever experiencing that. I’m not sure when I’ll shoot in cold conditions like that again, but it makes me wish my camera had better weather seals. Or maybe I’ll improvise something to keep condensation off the body and lens.

I’d originally planned to shoot all night, and even had a spare battery I could’ve used. I had plenty of memory card space. But it was so cold and I worried about the condensation. I could’ve stayed at the camp and driven back home the next morning, but I headed home. It was a long drive, and I was tired. It was worth it though. Those were my best night sky shots yet.

So what did I learn?

Leave earlier than you think so you have plenty of daylight to scout your location. Or go some other time in advance so you can plan.

Familiarize yourself with how your gear reacts to weather. Or pick a time when the weather isn’t a problem. I’ll go back to this spot later this year, and this time the mosquitoes, not condensation, will be my main problem.

Use maps and planning tools like Photopills to determine the best times and angles to shoot. I was pretty much winging it for this shoot.

For edits, I should’ve removed the light trails from the airplanes you can see in the star trails shot.

Any other tips? Please share them in the comments.

Searching for Dark Skies in Rural Louisiana

Fortunately, I don’t have to spend that many nights away from home. I drive a lot, but it’s usually there and back. I get up early, work, then try to get back at a decent hour.

Sometimes work schedules dictate otherwise. Sitting around a hotel doing nothing drives me nuts, since I’m used to so much going on at home. So if I can I try to go out and shoot. Since I like to shoot at night or very early in the morning this works out sometime.

Recently I was in Lake Charles, Louisiana overnight, and I wanted to try something different. I’m developing an interest in astrophotography and wanted to find a place away from city lights to shoot the night sky. Enter Dark Site Finder.

This site allows users to search locations worldwide for areas away from light pollution. There’s a color coded map overlaid a Google Maps style display. Lighter colors mean bright areas, close to cities, and darker areas mean areas out of town. If you find a site you consider dark, you can add it to the list of sites. In my case this wasn’t a problem – Lake Charles and most of the communities nearby are very brightly lit.

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 6.38.27 AM

This box represents where I spend 95% of my time – so mostly very bright areas. But it’s possible to get into some relatively dark areas.

The blue area shown below is where I was heading:

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 6.40.07 AM.png

I ended up driving about an hour northwest of Lake Charles, close to the Louisiana-Texas ¬†border. It was quiet – and dark. The moon was pretty full, so there was a ton of moonlight. Not ideal conditions, but it’s not like I could pick a different time. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to set up a trip that coincides with the new moon.

In the end I stayed out until around 8. I drove the hour back to Lake Charles, happy that I’d gotten some good (at least for me) shots, and more importantly, increased my skill in finding good locations and working on getting better shots in-camera. This is definitely something I’ll do again when I get a chance.

Photography Cure for Insomnia

Louisiana State Capital in Baton Rouge

Sometimes I have trouble getting back to sleep after waking during the night. Instead of tossing and turning, I started going out and shooting.

I’m not an experienced enough photographer yet to have settled into a set style or genre, but night photography seems to be my thing.

So I guess it’s ok that I go out and shoot at night, except of course missing out on some sleep. In a way that doesn’t matter because I’ve found I can clear my head while I’m out shooting, and when I get back from a late night shoot I usually go back to sleep quickly. Sometimes the shoots wind up being an early start to shooting a sunrise.

I’ve done everything from my first try at star trails, more interstate light trails, and more light painting, and even started working on time lapses.

Check these out:

light trails on Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge
Late night light trails on Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge
Louisiana State Capital in Baton Rouge
early morning shot of the Louisiana State Capital in Baton Rouge

I will get some others uploaded when I can, just to show a broad selection of the different shots I’ve gotten.

As a matter of fact, I’m writing this while out on a shoot. I have two cameras going right now, so maybe I will get something worth posting later.

Late night photography probably isn’t the textbook cure for insomnia, but it’s helping me.

Light Painting

You may be noticing a recurring theme – I really enjoy long exposure photography, especially at night. I love reading/watching tutorials on different photography and video topics. Light painting is, well, awesome. And there are a ton of different light painting tutorials out there.

A while back I was up in the middle of the night because I wanted to try capturing lightning in the night sky. That didn’t quite work out as planned, but I decided to kill some time by trying some light painting.

I started with a DIY lightsaber of sorts – a clear plastic tube used to store fluorescent light bulbs, some semi-transparent wrapping paper (blue), 2 small flashlights inserted into each end of the tube, my trusty Nikon D5300, tripod, and wireless remote. The 2 flashlights, tubes, and paper cost around $30. And I have enough to try many different color combinations – single or multiple tubes, you name it.

I picked a spot nearby with a bridge leading to a man made island, with a beautiful tree, fairly well lit at night. A couple of comments on my own shooting/setup – I should’ve worn darker clothing, and also should have set the ISO lower. I thought I’d overridden the Auto-ISO feature (I intended to shoot at ISO 100), but I didn’t. One thing’s for sure, I’ve made plenty of mistakes while shooting, and I have learned as much from my failures as I have from my good images.

I’ll try again soon and see what difference lowering the ISO makes. Each shot was at 30 seconds.

No great technique or post processing, just some fun trying something different.

Windshield Photography

I really enjoy long exposure photography, especially at night. A while back I saw some blog posts showing images captured while driving. Before I go any further, if you’re going to try what I’m calling windshield photography, put safety first and photography at least second. The author suggested having a friend drive while you ride in the back and take pictures. I’ll give that a try when I get a chance. For now, all the shots here are ones I got while driving.

So I thought I’d give it a try. Nothing fancy. I placed my trusty Nikon D5300 on my dashboard, set the shutter speed, guessed on manual focus, and off I went. One improvement I’ve thought of since would be to use a remote trigger, keeping both hands (mostly) free to drive.

The shots above are from two different rides around town. One was a rainy (very early!) morning commute, while the other was just a usual Friday night.

I knew I’d have some camera shake thanks to our fine roads (don’t get me started), so it was more to see what light trails I’d get based on different locations. Some of the best images came while driving around curves and by sitting at traffic signals in the rain.

While shooting in the rain, I keep my windshield wiper speed down so water droplets would build on the windshield, adding a different bit of bokeh to the traffic light shot.

No great technique or post processing, just some fun trying something different. I hadn’t yet heard the term windshield photography used, so I thought I’d see if it sticks.

Interstate Highway Light Trails

Capturing light trails seems to be a photography rite of passage. At some point, I think every aspiring photographer gives it a try. I’ve always been fascinated by long exposure photography, particularly at night, and so I jumped at the chance to capture interstate highway light trails.

I went out shooting one evening in downtown Baton Rouge, and after the sun went down I decided to head to one of the interstate overpasses and catch some light trails. Luckily for me, there was no traffic where I was standing, and I got some pretty good shots looking back towards downtown Baton Rouge and the Louisiana State Capital.
Interstate Light Trails
interstate light trails with the Louisiana State Capital in the background
Then, using some great (and free!) photo editing tips from Nathaniel Dodson (here’s the link to the video tutorial), I made some easy edits in Lightroom, and finally settled on the above image.
It was fun to try, and I’ll be sure to do it again the next chance I get.